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Landmarks commission chooses not to save Prentice hospital building

People speak out favor designating Prentice Women's Hospital landmark City Council Chambers City Hall Thursday November 1 2012. I Stacie

People speak out in favor of designating the Prentice Women's Hospital a landmark in the City Council Chambers at City Hall on Thursday, November 1, 2012. I Stacie Scott~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 3, 2012 6:43AM

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks refused Thursday to protect the former Prentice Women’s Hospital from demolition, despite recognizing the building’s merits for preservation.

The commission’s vote reflected the will of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has backed owner Northwestern University in its push to replace the work of architect Bertrand Goldberg with a medical research center.

Northwestern convinced city officials that despite its extensive land holdings in Streeterville, the Prentice site at 333 E. Superior is the only one suitable for the researchers. The economic impact and the school’s promise that the project will generate life-saving cures outweighed the appeal of preservation, the school said,

Prentice opened in 1975 but has been mostly unused since 2007. The cloverleaf-shaped strcuture originally was a groundbreaking work that applied new engineering techniques and computer-aided design, an innovation in the 1970s, to bring mothers and their babies closer to caregivers. A city staff report about Prentice’s attributes called it a “boldly sculptural building.”

Goldberg, who died in 1997, is best known as the architect of Chicago’s Marina City towers.

Northwestern said Prentice has outlived its usefulness and cannot be adapted for research.

“We have a formidable history with that property and are interested in making more history with it,” said Eugene Sunshine, the university’s senior vice president for business and finance, citing the potential for medical advances.

The vote to decline landmark protection came at a 5 1/2-hour hearing that featured testimony from some 60 people. Most people argued for Prentice’s preservation and said Northwestern was posing a false choice between a civic improvement and saving a building.

Jim Peters, a planning professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said Northwestern was engaged in “land banking” and noted the school’s admission that it will build nothing on the property until 2015.

Making a comparison to the Block 37 downtown site that remained empty for years, Peters said, “This will become another of those very unfortunate Chicago cases of the public being duped by an empty promise.”

Jonathan Fine, executive director of the group Preservation Chicago, told the commission it was violating its procedures on the Prentice issue. The mayoral-appointed commission followed a quick two-step process, first granting Prentice the first step toward landmark recognition, then revoking it in consideration of Northwestern’s plans.

The opinion that carried the day came from Andrew Mooney, Emanuel’s commissioner of Housing and Economic Development. Mooney submitted a report that said Northwestern’s project “outweighs the relative importance of maintaining the former Prentice building as an architectural landmark.

“The location is expected to become one of the critical nodes in Chicago’s medical industry, creating and attracting new companies and research institutes that will be at the cutting edge of scientific research in this country.”

Only one of the nine members on the commission, Christopher Reed, voted “no” on the key motion to refuse landmark protection.

Afterwards, commissioner Chairman Rafael Leon asked for understanding from preservation advocates, some of whom had accused his agency of following a “kangaroo court” procedure to reflect the mayor’s will.

Leon said the commission is bound to consider the consequences landmark designation can have on property owners and the city as a whole. Just because Prentice met technical criteria for landmark designation doesn’t mean it warrants it, Leon said.

Addressing Northwestern University and its affiliated hospital, Leon said, “The pressure is on you. You already have a vacant parcel across the street from Prentice and it’s not pretty. I urge you not to create another parcel that sits vacant for a long time.”

He added, “The pressure is on you to build a magnificent building that will make Chicago proud of its architecture.”

The parcel across the street is a two-block stretch that the hospital owns. It’s the former location of the Lakeside VA Hospital.

Sunshine said Northwestern will hold a design competition for the medical research center in 2013. Groups such as Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation offered other options for Prentice, but Northwestern said the research center must be built next to its existing Lurie Research Center at 303 E. Superior. But the school must raise funds for a project it estimated would cost $300 million to $400 million.

In endorsing the project Tuesday after months of behind-the-scenes discussions and pressure from internationally renowned architects who weighed in on the preservation side, Emanuel cited its 2,500 construction jobs, 2,000 permanent jobs and its promise of vaulting Chicago to the top in medical science.

The commission acted in an unusual way, compressing a proposal that normally would require weeks of review and hearings into a single afternoon. Preservationists couldn’t recall the commission ever doing that.

In its first vote, the commission endorsed staff research that Prentice merited landmark consderation on four grounds: heritage of its design, architecture deemed exemplary, its association with a famous architect and its possession of a “unique visual feature.”

The second vote followed Mooney’s recommendation that it rescind the “premliminary landmark recommendation.”

Mooney said the panel acted in accordance with city ordinance that lets it consider landmark protection within a “larger framework” of civic issues. “The ordinance itself sets up that kind of dialogue and that’s what we’re about today,” he said.

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